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Sharktober Part Three 

On "paying the rent"

Sharktober?" my friend asked. I'd just told him about this column I'm writing.

"Yes, Sharktober," I repeated.

"Shark ... tober?" he said again, drawing the syllables out as if to ensure he was saying the word properly.

"Yes!" I confirmed once more.

We stared at each other for a moment, then it dawned on me: He doesn't know about Sharktober.

I shall now state the obvious: Sharktober is a mashing together of the words "shark" and "October," and a term that came about because West Coast shark encounters are more likely in late summer and fall. This is borne out by Shark Research Committee statistics, which note a dramatic uptick in attacks during August, September and October — 63 percent of recorded occurrences happened during those months.

Now you know.

Another friend recently reminisced, after reading last week's column on Scott Stephens ("Sharktober Part 2," Oct. 12), how after the attack, a dude had been hanging out in the hospital parking lot trying to sneak in a six-pack of Great White beer to give to Scott. You'd be forgiven for thinking, "Wow, what poor taste," but surfers are kind of sick in the head — again, I state the obvious — and Northern Californian surfers especially so. It's not exactly sane behavior to tug a thick neoprene skin over your bare ass on a beach shrouded in fog just so you can go paddle out into cold water and big waves.

Which brings me back to gallows humor. We know cracking jokes about stressful or scary situations helps us poor humans cope with such things. So it's no surprise when Sharktober rolls around and, even as everyone is tensed up over the increased likelihood of an attack, the humor ramps up along with the swell. In addition to other cute nicknames, like "the man in the gray suit," great white sharks are known as "the landlord" and to get hit by one equates to "paying the rent." Because most of us, regardless of where we were born and as comfortable as we might be in the water, understand that we will never be the true locals in the ocean. That designation belongs to the dolphins, seals, sea lions, sharks and all the creatures to whom the ocean truly belongs. (For the record, I find sea lions very scary and have been stink-eyed out of the water by them more than once and, also, they can run faster than us on land.)

But let us return to Sharktober. First, summer on the California coast is typically made up of May Gray, June Gloom, No-Sky July, Fogust and small, sloppy surf produced by stupid northwest winds. It's not until September that the skies clear for real, the air turns balmy and the newly south wind brings the promise of serious swell. It also heralds the beginning of shark season and a twisted sort of waiting game: Who will it be this year?

To be sure, years pass without encounters — at least reported ones. And we know sharks swim among us, regardless of whether we see them or not. Just ask any fisherman or Coastie. But if someone is going to be hit, then it'll probably happen soon. And when it does, the media will descend, word will spread, a local surf shop will ante up a new wetsuit, surfers will pitch in to cover medical bills and a new board and, yes, many Great Whites will be hoisted in honor of the person who took the hit for the team.

Let me take a moment to note an important fact: As a species, sharks have way more to fear from humans. While an individual shark has the advantage over a lone surfer, swimmer or diver, humans collectively slaughter more than 100 million sharks every year. That's 11,000 per hour. In contrast, since 1980, only 10 people have been killed by great whites off the California coast. A 2015 Stanford University study focused on California found that surfers have a mere 1-in-17 million chance of being bitten. Even in Humboldt County, you're far more at risk of dying by car or gun than shark. According to NatGeo, things more dangerous than sharks include toilets, buckets and air fresheners. (And if you're a woman who surfs, remember this: You are much more likely to be attacked by a white guy in a position of power than a shark, no matter how great and white and powerful it is.)

Further, it's really easy to avoid a shark attack: Stay out of the ocean. You know, you can get SUP boards pretty cheap these days and the lagoons are really pretty. But if you, like me and all the other sickos, can't stomach the thought of never immersing yourself in salt water again, here are some tips to minimize the already minimal danger, and what to do if you do happen to come face-to-teeth with our ocean's proprietor:

1. Invite a few friends to learn to surf, then keep them around you as a sort of buffer. You'll still get all the waves, but lessen the odds that it's you that'll get hit.

2. Remember, you don't have to be the best surfer in the water: You only have to be the fastest paddler.

3. OK, more seriously, avoid river mouths and harbor entrances, as that's where seals and sea lions typically congregate and sharks, being clever beasties, follow. Think of it as a buffet table, one that you would prefer not to be on.

4. Similarly, avoid the following: vast gatherings of circling birds, areas with wounded or dead marine mammals, bait balls, Bunkers.

5. I know, surfing alone is magical. But save it for summer. Immediate medical care makes a difference so, for once, find something to appreciate about sharing waves.

6. Seals or sea lions bolting vertically and suddenly out of the water nearby? Get the hell out.

7. If a shark decides to check you out, the usual advice applies: Punch hard, punch often. Aim for the nose and eyes.

Most modern shark researchers reject the idea that sharks mistake surfers for seals or sea lions. Instead, prevailing theory is, since they're not afraid of much (maybe orcas?), they're not worried about checking you out to see if they'd like to eat you. But turns out we're way too bony for their taste, unlike juvenile harbor seals, who are "simply plucked from the surface like grapes and eaten whole." (Thanks, Shark Research Committee!)

Check back next week for "Sharktober Part Four."


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Jennifer Savage

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